“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a father,” said Gordon, “it’s that each child is different.” He settled down into the chair in my office with a look of sad resignation.
A successful financial analyst, Gordon was the father of four ons. “When Gloria and I were married, we couldn’t wait to have a family,” he said. “I didn’t have a great relationship with my own dad, so I really wanted to have that closeness.”
The couple had three boys in rapid succession, all of whom now idolized their dad. Then came Jimmy.
Gloria, seated in the easy chair next to her husband, looked at me with sad, worried eyes. “By the time I was pregnant with Jimmy,” she said quietly, “I wanted a girl so badly. Jimmy was to be our last child. When he was born, I was disappointed to tears.”
Perhaps Jimmy and his mother had unconsciously worked together to remedy that disappointment, because at the age of eight, Jimmy was now his mom’s closest friend. A caring and gentle boy who showed a gift for playing the piano, Jimmy was the kind of child who is naturally attuned to what other people are thinking and feeling. By this age, he could read his mother’s moods “like a book,” but had not a single male friend his age. In fact, he was already showing many signs of pre-homosexual behavior. Gloria had recently become concerned about the boy’s increasing social isolation and depression. In contrast, their older boys were happy and well-adjusted.
Jimmy’s gender confusion had first become noticeable years before, when he started putting on his grandmother’s earrings and trying on her makeup. Gloria’s gold and silver hair barrettes had been especially captivating for the little boy, and he soon developed quite an astute sense of what he liked and didn’t like about women’s clothing—all this before he ever started school. He was just four years old at that time.
“I treated Jimmy just like I treated all my other sons,” said Gordon. “And I guess that didn’t work, because he always seemed to take my criticism the wrong way. He’d go off to his room and refuse to speak to me for a couple of days.”
Now, having grown older, Jimmy was presenting many other troublesome signs–an over-active imagination that he used as a substitute for human relationships; immaturity, and contemptuous rejection of his athletic older brothers and the friends they brought home. Gordon recalled that their other sons always had rushed out to meet him when he arrived home from work. But not Jimmy, who had always acted as though his dad was unimportant.
Right now, it was Jimmy’s fantasy world that caused everyone the most concern. He had a “make-believe” life in which he spent hours alone in his room drawing cartoon characters. And Gloria had observed another disturbing pattern—whenever Jimmy became intensely frustrated as a result of a painful event in his life, he immediately retreated into the world of feminine make-believe. When one of his brothers’ friends was visiting the house and had teased or slighted him, he would revert into an exaggerated version of feminine conduct.
Finally, Gloria and Gordon agreed to do something to help their son. Gordon could see that his son had, for a long time, retreated from him. “When Jimmy was little, I went through a tough time. Our marriage was stretched to the max, and I was having a lot of trouble at work. I guess I just didn’t want to be bothered reaching out to a temperamental little kid who pouted and stomped off to his room whenever I said something he took as criticism.”
The other boys, in contrast, had always been eager to play with their dad and to seek out his attention. “So I just let Jimmy choose not to be with me,” Gordon admitted. “I have to admit, my way of thinking was, ‘Well, if Jimmy doesn’t want to be around me, then that’s his problem.'”
“Our strategy, then,” I explained, “is to do just the opposite of what you’ve been doing. That means, Gordon–you need to actively engage Jimmy. Gloria, you’ll need to learn to back off from him. And the whole family has to keep working together to remind Jimmy that being a boy is a good thing.”
My strategy for him included encouraging Gordon, his Dad, to give him special attention, having him take the boy out with him on errands, and engaging him in contact-type physical play. I try to sensitize fathers to the many daily opportunities, such as going out to gas up the car and allowing the son to hold the gas pump, for example, or stopping to buy an ice cream cone and engaging the boy in a conversation about something that’s of specific interest to him. All of these small efforts are part of building the male-male bonding that lay the foundation for a strong father-son relationship.
Sometimes Gordon invited Jimmy to go with him into the back yard to help him work in the garden or start the barbecue. Gordon made it his business to be home when Jimmy had his weekly piano lessons, and to go to all the boy’s recitals. At other times he included the boy in sports outings with his older brothers, hoping to draw Jimmy out from his habit of isolation and his resentment of his brothers.
At first, Jimmy responded with explicit rejection of his father’s invitations. When invited to go along with him to the office, for example, the invitation was turned down in no uncertain terms. But as he developed a more comfortable relationship with his father, Jimmy began to act more like a boy, and at school, he was beginning to find himself teased and scapegoated less often.
With my encouragement, Jimmy’s parents decided to send him to a day camp that encouraged sports participation but that was not competitive, and that had more boys than girls enrolled. Jimmy’s mother Gloria made the special effort of soliciting the help of the camp supervisor, a young college-age man who was willing to give Jimmy the special male attention he needed.
Boys like Jimmy must understand that their parents are supporting, encouraging and uplifting them, not being judgmental and critical. As a result of his parents’ consistent intervention, Jimmy’s gender-inappropriate behavior gradually diminished. This included not only his effeminacy, but his peer isolation, general immaturity, and fear and dislike of more masculine boys.
Later, Gordon told me, “When Jimmy dismisses me and acts like I’m not important, I’ve got to admit it’s kind of a slap at my ego, and I’m tempted to walk away. It’s so much easier just to coast along and accept the status quo. But then I remember that Jimmy’s attitude toward me is a defense. Underneath all that rejection and contempt, he really does want to connect with me. So I put aside my feelings and just keep pursuing him. I dropped the ball with him when Jimmy was younger, but now, I’m not going to let him just turn me away.”
As we’ve seen, boyhood gender confusion is really a retreat from the challenges of masculinity. And many studies indicate that gender confusion is also associated with other problems, which–as in Jimmy’s case–usually include rejection of his father, social isolationism, and compensation in a fantasy world.
Successful treatment helps the boy find his way in a world which is naturally divided into males and females. With the dedicated help of the two most important adults in his life, his mother and father, the gender-confused boy can begin to abandon his secret androgynous fantasy and discover the greater satisfaction of joining the gendered the world.
As a parent, you’ll need to be sure that your interventions–with or without a therapist–are done gently and affirmatively, and yet clearly. While discouraging unwanted cross-gender behavior, parents must be sure that the child feels affirmed as a unique individual.
This means your child need not be expected to be a “stylized” boy or girl, with nothing but gender-stereotypical interests. There can be a fair amount of gender role crossover–but at the same time, healthy androgyny must first be built upon a solid foundation of secruity in one’s original gender.
It is essential that you always respectfully listen to your child. Don’t force him into activities he hates. Don’t make him conform to a role that frightens him. Don’t shame him into covering up effeminate mannerisms. The process of change must proceed gradually, through a series of steps that are always accompanied by encouragement.